Martin Luther King and the New American Frontier

Author’s Note 

William Appleman Williams and I published this essay in Renewal Magazine almost thirty-eight years ago. Though Martin Luther King and the New American Frontier was written for another generation of leaders-and another generation of policies-in Chicago, the scenario is all too similar today: we have a class of poor people struggling to find their place in “urban renaissance” that threatens to parallel the “urban renewal” of the previous generation. Tax Increment Financing has replaced Model Cities as the preferred mechanism for curing our cities of perceived “blight,” and a new Mayer Daley is no better than the old when it comes to providing a voice for poor Blacks in the decision-making process. 

The situation is similar in cities across the country. While many of our nation’s cities have seen a welcome influx of wealth (and capital), our elected leaders have largely done no better over the past thirty-four years in terms of including the voices of the poor in development. The poor simply have not been able to compete with money and muscle for a voice to redevelopment. 

One hope for the poor in redevelopment, though, has come in the increased use of planners, to whom elected officials turn in the design and implementation of so-called “community redevelopment” policies. Of course, planners have a spotty track record in this regard; their mid-century participation in urban renewal was nothing less than a low point of the profession-a camouflage for its true goal of “Negro removal.” Done right, though, planning potentially holds the key to the real empowerment for the first time of millions of poor, minority families affected by these policies. 

In order to achieve its promise, the planning profession must engage in a reflective debate over the question “planning for what?” Among other things, Martin Luther King and the New American Frontier issues an opening challenging for this debate: I contend that anyone interested in creating (for the first time) an urban community must think deeply about how to secure our cherished values of independence and self-determination of our policies directed toward the poor. Planners must recognize that they have the opportunity and indeed the duty to empower the voices of all the interested in the community, including those poor people who have historically been most adversely affected by their work.  

In short, Martin Luther King and the New American Frontier holds lessons that can save planners from making mistakes today comparable to the urban renewal of the 1950s by beginning a serious debate about the duties of their profession and the results of their actions. Absent this considered debate, planning of the sake of planning, like action for the sake of action, is a Neanderthal notice, albeit one with a (false) sense of accomplishment. To be truly useful planning must be a process by which we engage our past and present, warts and all, to project an inclusive vision of our collective future. 

Martin Luther King and the New American Frontier

By William Appleman Williams and Lewis Kreinberg 

(Originally Published in Renewal Magazine, April 5, 1968) 

“Martin Luther King and the New American Frontier” is written for those white leaders who, in their search for mechanisms for change, are fearful of the potential force of black men, and who fall back on racist solutions, such as dispersing black people and the ghetto, and thereby maintain the “law of dominance.” 

This paper and its appendix are not to be mistaken for a ghetto manifesto for they are in reality the work of two men who,  pained  by the loss of Martin Luther King-whom they said “Yes” to a long time ago—came to reason together. William Appleman Williams has taught at various colleges and universities and is currently Professor of History of the University of Wiscosin and author of many books. Lewis Kreinberg, research director for the West Side Federation, has been on loan to local community organizations from the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. 

Deep concern over the inadequacies of the Chicago program for citizen participation in Model Cities exists in the target areas—black and white. Despite the Housing and Urban Development guidelines, very little is spelled out concerning Chicago’s citizen participation. Will the advisory councils be permitted to do more than review proposals? What will be the councils’ recommendation to the decision-making processes? Will “model” cities deny blacks the only turf they possess or make possible the first genuine experiment in black self-determination? 

Most distressing is the proposed composition of Chicago’s Model Area planning councils. Chicago proposes to develop these councils around existing community conservation councils, augmented by representatives from advisory boards of the Urban Program Centers. Community arguments against selection of these people by the Mayor have been ignored.  

Such actions cannot go unchallenged. The people in Lawndale through the Lawndale Peoples’ Planning Committee have an organization which is theirs and which represents a cross-section of the community. The day has passed when our public officials and industrial leaders can shake their heads in approval of independent organizations, say all is well, and at the same time squash the people’s attempts at self-determination. 
 

“Life is cheap in the ghetto.”

“Man, you better believe it—this is our turf.”

Those urban-racial idioms offer a vital clue to the crisis that has gone unrecognized.

Look at them again.

“Life is cheap in the ghetto.”

“Man, you better believe it—this is our turf.”

Now change the crucial words to their equivalents from the late 19th century.

“Life is cheap on the frontier.”

“Mister, you need to understand that this land is ours. We homesteaded it.” 

What suddenly appears, of course, is the embittered late 19th century struggles by the neo-colonial American agrarians against their metropolitan overlords.

And therein lies the key to understanding our present peril. For the problem is not primarily a 20th century urban predicament, but rather the impasse of the 19th century set in different surroundings. 

I. 

Beginning in the 1870s, the neo-colonial farmers of the south and west mounted two major attacks against the policies of the metropolis. Southerners concentrated their assault on the money power that shaped and controlled their entire lives through the crop-lien system based on the credit-line extended by the local store owner. Their secondary targets were gross discrimination in railroad rates and the power over decision-making exercised by metropolitan leaders and their southern allies and satellites).  

Western farmers had the same complaints against railroad houses and the metropolitan control of economic and political decisions. But they also attacked the metropolitan land policies that denied them cheap or free access to the best, most easily farmed, and most productive soil. That assault became increasingly embittered as it became apparent that such land was disappearing. 

The idea that a surplus of free land was the major determinant—the necessary condition—of prosperity, political freedom, and social welfare had long been the fundamental axiom of the American outlook. Given that assumption and tradition, the agrarian response to the land crisis was neither surprising nor unique. 

First, the farmers mounted an intensive campaign to reclaim all such good land that was owned by foreigners, or by domestic metropolitan corporations (like the railroads) and individual land kings. Many western states passed such laws, and a much weaker federal regulation was finally pushed through the Congress at the end of the 1880’s. 

Second, the agrarians increased intensity and militance of their campaign to limit and regulate the economic power of the metropolis, and to reform its existing policies and practices. They simultaneously organized themselves politically to win farmer-power directly through their own parties and indirectly by influencing and scaring the two major parties. 

Third, the farmers initiated a search for a new frontier to replace the land frontier upon which they had relied for two centuries. They found that frontier in overseas markets for the surplus food and cotton they were producing in increasing quantities. The ironic result was that the agrarians, who were neo-colonials at home, because imperialists as a way of improving their domestic welfare. 

In making that change, however, the agrarians attempted to honor the traditional relationship between expansion and freedom. They argued that their economic expansion into other nations would create the conditions for freedom in those societies (which would expand everyone’s economic welfare), and they insisted that American power be deployed to uphold the independence and self-determination of such weaker countries. 

In the end, therefore, the late 19th century agrarians exercised extensive influence on the thinking and the action of the metropolitan minority that held superior power. The agrarian argument for imperial economic expansion was adopted and adapted by metropolitan leaders, who formulated that policy in terms of the territorial integrity, independence, and self-determination of the foreign societies subjected to American expansion. 

II. 

It may seem, of course, that there is no meaningful relationship between the experience of the neo-colonial agrarians of the late 19th century and the reality confronted by the neo-colonial black men of contemporary American society. But in truth there are four crucial similarities that offer insights into the present impasse and, at the same time, present guidelines for action.  

First, the American black man is today even more of a domestic colonial than the late 19th century agrarian.  

Second, the ghetto has been the black man’s only frontier for the last century, and he is now faced by an aggressive campaign to take that land away from him at a time when he has no other place to go.  

Third, the black man is demanding that the white metropolitan leaders honor the very principles of territorial integrity, independence, and self-determination that were insisted upon by the earlier neo-colonial agrarians. 

Fourth, the black man is demanding the same kind of participating share in the decision-making process that the agrarian fought for in the late 19th century. 

The mere enumeration of those parallels goes far to explain the existing peril. It becomes glaringly clear in the light of the differences between the two situations. 

First, the black man cannot turn to the new frontier of overseas markets and the related imperial outreach. He has been denied any opportunity to make his only frontier—the ghetto—productive enough to meet his own needs, let alone to produce surpluses for foreign markets. The only way be can share, in the imperial frontier is to shoulder a gun to defend himself and to loot. 

Martin Luther King recognized that primary truth many lonely years ago. “I’m not concerned with New Jerusalem,” he cried out in 1960. “I’m concerned with the New Atlanta, the New Birmingham, the New Montgomery, the New South.” He understood, moreover, that the same issue defined the problem in the north, and so demanded a New Chicago and a New Cleveland. The only new frontier, King bravely insisted, standing alone on the mountain top many painful years, as defined by the nonviolent reconstruction of America itself. 

Second, the black man is a small colonial minority dominated by a white metropolitan majority. He has potential controlling power only in those situations, some areas in the south and in the ghettos, where he is concentrated enough to be a local majority. Even in those places, however, he is blocked from making effective use of his potential power; and on the national scene he lacks even the hope of attaining general influence that sustained the 19th century agrarians. It should be enough to recall that the farmers turned to demonstrations, intimidation, and violence. They even burned their own crops. 

Third, there is no firmly established tradition among the metropolitan white majority of treating the black man according to that majority’s avowed principles of territorial integrity, independence, and self-determination. There is instead a rhetoric of such behavior towered all Americans, merely including the black man, and the history of sporadic efforts to honor that rhetoric in practice. The black man is truly fighting in the name of the white metropolitan majority’s own principles. 

The most telling evidence of this vital point comes from a comparison between the white metropolitan majority’s treatment of the Indian and the Afro-American. The Indian was first pushed off to his own frontier, just as the black man was given the ghetto. Then, when the white majority wanted the Indian’s frontier, it used military force to enclose him in a vastly smaller reservation. And so with the black man inside the ghetto. 

Then the Indian was sustained tin that condition through a casually arrogant benevolence that provided bare sustenance. And so, once more, with the black man. And finally, when the white majority wanted the reservation, it told the Indian to pack his bag and enter the marketplace as a free individual. He was of course wholly unprepared to confront that terrifying challenge, which had become so totally demanding and corrosive that it was destroying increasing members of the white majority itself. And so, again, with the black man. 

It is most sobering to realize, moreover, that once he unequivocally decided to resist such treatment, the Indian carried on an armed resistance for more than 20 years. The example of Vietnam and the black revolt in the ghettoes is by no means the first instance in which this country has faced such a two-front war. The Union was fighting the Indians in the west all through the war against the Confederacy, and the foreign war was terminated long before the domestic battle. 

III. 

On even the most pragmatic grounds, therefore, it would seem useful to have joined Martin Luther King tin the confrontation he made so long ago. There is no new frontier for the colonial American black men except a new America. And there is no new frontier for the white metropolitan American majority except in the honoring of its own commitment to territorial integrity, independence, and self-determination for the black man. If the white metropolitan majority will honor its principles, then it may be possible, ultimately, to create an American community. 

There are several important truths to be recognized and honored, however, if we are to act effectively on Martin Luther King’s truth. 

First, the white metropolitan majority cannot be so simplistic as to react, either individually or collectively, solely in terms of the extremist black militants. That is only to repeat the catastrophe error made in dealing with the Indians; to say, that is, that men who have been driven by despair over a miserable policy, who resist, and who attempt to devise a better policy are enemies forever. It must be realized that nonviolent does not mean nonforceful or noneffective. Nonviolence is demanding and difficult because it requires strength, confidence, patience, and imagination. And one is sometimes tempted to conclude that American seem so prone to violence because they have no stamina for routine and sustained effort except as it promises a quick money profit. Martin Luther King’s truth about nonviolence, however, is simply that the only frontier for an individual is his battle to make such an effort in the name of his very humanity. To distort this to revile all black leaders as if they were things to be destroyed, and that is mankind’s most reliable prescription for chaos. 

Second, the white metropolitan majority must recognize that its leaders are acting on a mistaken anslysis of the crisis, and upon poor advice from their junior executives. That should not be too difficult in April 1968. For in Chicago, as elsewhere, it is not apparent that the established authorities cannot and do not keep the peace. Mayor Daley has the toughest, most efficient machine in the nation, yet his city is anything but safe. The police can not do it. The federal troops can not do it. And the repressive and fearful legislation can not do it.  

The only force that keeps the peace on the colonial black man’s frontier is the leadership of the black community. They cool it when they feel they are independent, self determined, and respected as leaders of their own human territory.  

Hence, the white majority has to make its own leaders respect, encourage, and help such independent, self-determined black men. That will involve two operations. One is to enter white politics in whatever strength, and in whatever manner, that are necessary to produce a change in white leadership. The other is to insist that all policies and programs for the colonial black man honor their own white principles of self-determination, independence, and territorial integrity. 

That means, in connection with such programs as Model Cities, that the black man controls the money and the decisions on planning and implementation. The advisory boards must not only have 51 percent ghetto control, but they must participate in all phases of the planning, and they must have veto power over decisions made by higher authorities. And it means that education must be defined by a context and quality that will create black men and women capable of leading their own communities, and the entire American community, as well as producing men and women capable of performing economic tasks. 

Finally, the white majority must realize that the land the black man now holds is his land. It is the only stake in America that America has given him. The white majority’s primary responsibility is to supply the help that is required for the black man to improve that land in his own way and through his own politics. The white majority’s second responsibility is to prepare itself, should it ultimately be invited, to be the kind of human majority capable of sharing that land as a part of building the new American community that Martin Luther King, Jr. glimpsed from his mountain top. 

About the Author: Lewis Kreinberg has been swept back to Chicago after a brief stay in Mississippi. He is available for speaking engagements through the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs at 312-663-0960.